For the near future, Christine Mangan is making Red Hook home. The novelist’s new Brooklyn apartment, into which she moved in October, bears signs of both settlement and her lifetime of travels. Her writing space, which she shares with her partner, is perfectly decorated and well lived in. (His side, on the other hand, could use some sprucing.)
In other rooms she traces the origin stories of her various furniture. The kitchen table, for instance, was shipped over from Dubai, where she’s spent the past year teaching creative writing, while the living room rug is a treasure from Morocco.
Mangan is HarperCollins’ newest breakout author, who today publishes her debut novel, the Tangier, Morocco-based mystery thriller “Tangerine.” Hailed by the publisher as one of their most promising spring releases, the book, set in the Fifties between Bennington College in Vermont and the Moroccan city, has already been optioned by George Clooney’s production company Smokehouse Pictures, with Scarlett Johansson signed on to star.
“Tangerine” follows Bennington roommates Alice and Lucy, the first an orphaned and incredibly shy English girl with a lofty inheritance, the latter a local Vermont scholarship recipient who is confident and self-assured — everything Alice is not. The tightly wound plot lapses between the days at Bennington, where allusions to an “incident” that occurred during their time there are slowly teased out, and Tangier, where Alice has settled post-graduation with her new husband and where Lucy shows up unannounced, a rather unwelcome surprise.
Mangan has been nomadic for much of her life. Originally from the metro Detroit area, she spent parts of her upbringing on Long Island and in North Carolina before heading to Bennington College — which her two main characters attend — for a year. Returning to the midwest to attend Columbia College Chicago for her bachelor’s, she then lived in Chicago while completing an MFA from the University of Southern Maine before heading to University College Dublin for her Ph.D.
Making it to Morocco was always in the back of her mind. “I found this piece of paper that I wrote when I was little of these goals that I wanted to hit, and for some reason I had down that I wanted to get to Africa before 30.” Mangan says. “So before I was 30, I managed to make it out to Marrakech, and then took an overnight train to Tangier; we didn’t actually stay in Tangier but even just walking through I just had this feeling of ‘I want to come back.’”
Upon finishing her degree in Ireland, and with some time to spare on her visa, she traveled around Europe for several months before finally returning to Tangier. It was from that trip, in 2015, that the idea of a book was born.
“Tangier is so different from anywhere that I’ve been. There’s a famous saying that ‘You cry when you arrive and you cry when you leave.’ I’ve read it for a lot of places but there is something about Tangier that I think that fits so well,” Mangan says. “I think when you go there, the first thought is ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ But at the same time, the places there and the people who you meet, there is something that sets it apart from everywhere else. To be able to sit in a café and drink your mint tea and look out where the Atlantic and the Mediterranean meet, and think about all the writers and artists who have been there before, those are the moments you go back for. And I think it is such a unique city, too, because so many people have chosen to make it their home, have come there because they don’t feel like they fit in in other places.”
It also is a city that is often viewed as dangerous and mysterious, something Mangan found both important to explore and evocative of her research in Gothic literature, for her Ph.D.
“Some of the conversations in the book are actually quite similar to experiences I had when I was there,” she says. “People always mention the fact that people think Tangier is this dangerous place, but it’s really about you, and what you bring to Tangier that makes it dangerous. I liked that idea that Tangier was this mysterious place, that a lot of people are scared of it, are puzzled by it.”
It was, she felt, the perfect backdrop on which to play our a complicated relationship between two women, one rooted in Gothic themes.
“I had spent some time reading about Eliza Parsons, a 18th-century Gothic writer. In one of her most well-known pieces, ‘The Castle of Wolfenbach,’ it’s not actually the men who come and save these women who are imprisoned, it’s the women themselves who reach out and help each other,” Mangan says. “I was interested in creating these women, set against this background that was sort of Gothic in many ways, and just kind of playing around with this idea of ‘OK, well maybe they’re the danger,’ but it’s not this place that they find themselves in; everything that happens to them, is a result of what they have brought with them, the relationship that they have. It’s just kind of played out against Tangier.”
The Fifties were a time when women didn’t have much agency or identity beyond their husband (and Alice’s husband, John, is not exactly the book’s most likable character), but too a moment when Tangier was seeking its own independence, when Morocco became independent from France.
“I’m hesitant to say [I pulled from] my own experiences, but I do think that most women go through, in their formative years, that moment where you have this friend who mean everything in the world to you and something does always happen that’s going to change that,” Mangan says. “In ‘Tangerine,’ all of that is taken to Gothic extremes. But I think that really everybody has had some sort of relationship where that person is everything to you, they mean the world to you — and then what happens when that’s threatened, when it starts to break apart?”